By Hannah E. Jones
It’s that time of year again — the ParkScore index has been released, bringing the opportunity to reflect on Atlanta’s park system.
Created by the Trust for Public Land (TPL), the annual ParkScore ranks the 100 most populous cities based on five categories — access, investment, equity, amenities and acreage.
This year, the City of Atlanta was placed at No. 28. This is one spot lower than last year, but TPL noted that the city’s new ranking was based on changes within other park systems, not missteps in Atlanta.
Washington, DC was rated the best U.S. park system for the third year in a row. The 2023 top ten cities include Washington, DC; St. Paul, Minn.; Minneapolis, Minn.; Irvine, Calif.; Arlington, Va.; Cincinnati, Ohio; San Francisco, Calif.; Seattle, Wash.; and Portland, Ore. — with New York and Boston, Mass. tied for No. 10.
With an increased focus and investment in Atlanta’s parks over the last few years, the city’s positioning on the index has skyrocketed. The 2022 ranking was the highest Atlanta has ever been on that list, coming in at No. 27 after sitting at No. 49 the previous year.
“Last year, we made a significant leap and we got into the top 30 for the first time,” said George Dusenbury, TPL’s vice president for the Southern region and Georgia state director. “[This year,] we were able to pretty much hold our own as other cities were improving. It’s a good sign that last year wasn’t a fluke and that the City of Atlanta is making substantive progress and we continue to do well by our park system.”
Park Pride Executive Director Michael Halicki said that he’s “proud of Atlanta’s rise in the ParkScore ranking,” adding, “That said, you haven’t seen nothin’ yet. What we have in the works makes me optimistic to build upon our reputation as a city on the rise.”
This year, TPL recognized two major strengths among local park-related efforts — access and investment. In the city, 77 percent of residents can walk to a park within 10 minutes, slightly higher than the national average. Additionally, Atlanta invests about $211 per person on parks, which is almost twice the national ParkScore average of $108.
TPL measures the investment category based on a three-year average and includes funding from local governments and other organizations like Park Pride, Atlanta BeltLine Inc. and Piedmont Park Conservancy.
When considering the strides made in recent years regarding park access and investment, Dusenbury points to projects like the Westside Park, Rodney Cook Sr. Park and the former site of the Chattahoochee Brick Co. The Conservation Fund was instrumental in acquiring the land for projects like Chattahoochee Brick and the BeltLine and, last year, the team added 268 acres of new greenspace within city limits.
“We hope to continue that momentum in 2023 through new park acquisitions that increase the overall number of parks and equitable access to greenspace throughout the City,” Stacy Funderburke, Georgia state director at the The Conservation Fund, told SaportaReport.
The weaknesses in Atlanta — or as Dusenbury likes to call it, “opportunities for improvement” — are its below-average median park size and equity factors. The ParkScore notes that Atlanta’s median park size is 2.9 acres, compared to the national 5.4 acres.
The Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) is responsible for the upkeep of 3,000-plus acres of parkland, and Dusenbury points out that a series of smaller parks can be more difficult to manage than one large greenspace. These outdoor areas also generally have fewer amenities and programming for visitors compared to their larger counterparts. However, there is a benefit to having pocket-sized neighborhood parks that help offset Atlanta’s ever-increasing density.
To help address equity, the city released its Parks and Recreation Equity Data Tool which identifies neighborhoods, parks and recreation centers with the greatest need. Dusenbury also points to TPL’s Community Schoolyards initiative, an effort to transform existing schoolyards into thriving greenspaces that are open to the public outside of school hours.
Insufficient maintenance has been a major concern for local park experts and to Halicki, this goes hand-in-hand with equity. However, Councilmember Dustin Hillis recently introduced legislation that would double the money dedicated to local parks, recreation centers and trails through the City’s Parks Improvement Fund. It would also allocate 40 percent of those funds to maintenance.
“[Maintenance] winds up being a secondary [focus], but if your park isn’t well-maintained and if it’s not safe, then you’re not going to it,” Halicki said. “I think we’re getting to a better place on those issues but we need to acknowledge the fact that we’re not there yet and it’s going to take a concerted effort over many years to get to a different point.”
In recent years, local greenspaces have served as multifaceted spaces to fulfill the various needs of the community. While this isn’t part of the criteria for the ParkScore, TPL has recognized Atlanta as a leader in promoting community health through parks.
For example, the team behind Sara J. González Memorial Park partners with Welcoming Atlanta to host food and goods distribution events twice a month. The Alliance for the Activation of Cook Park is also working with the Atlanta BeltLine and DPR to host a “Walk with a Doc” program.
Over the next few years, Dusenbury expects to see Atlanta continue to climb in the ranks. There are a few things in the works — including the Community Schoolyards initiative, investment from the Tree Trust Fund and legislation to improve maintenance — that he believes will pay off for Atlantans. To check out Atlanta’s 2023 ParkScore in greater detail, click here.
It is surprising to me that Atlanta’s score has improved. I walk in Atlanta’s crown jewel of parks, Piedmont Park, most every morning for years now. It is a study in deferred maintenance. The track around the green is filled with potholes and often covered with mud. The boardwalk through the woods near the dog park has been closed for years and is rotting into the ground. Step railings have rusted at the ground and fallen over. Instead of making repairs, yellow caution tape is strung, or orange cones are placed to warn of the hazards. There has been a steady decline in the park’s maintenance. About the only work that’s done is mowing and blowing, trash pickup, and daily restroom cleaning. It’s sad to see Atlanta’s “Central Park” in such condition.
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